William Foxwell Albright (1891–1971), perhaps the greatest biblical scholar of the 20th century, stated quite matter-of-factly that the Dead Sea Scrolls are "the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times." Such oft-quoted statements as this may well both explain and help create the enormous and sustained interest in the scrolls. Certainly the current issue of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity shows in numerous large and small ways why the scrolls are important, particularly for the study of the Bible, and gives a better appreciation of the varieties of Judaism in the world of Jesus Christ, thus confirming Albright's claim for another generation of scholars, students, and general readers.
There is, however, another possible response to Albright's statement, and that is to ask, "What's the competition?" It is only natural to want to know who the other finalists in the beauty pageant of modern manuscript discoveries might possibly be. It's a question worth thinking about, because on reflection there are quite a few candidates. Hugh Nibley, for example, gave us a list of 20 finalists. Space permits us to consider only two other finds that might deserve a place on the podium on either side of the Dead Sea Scrolls. As a scholar of early Christianity, I would select as my finalists the library of the Monastery of the Syrians in Egypt (one that didn't make Nibley's list) and the ancient Christian library found at Nag Hammadi.
The most recent text from the Monastery of the Syrians to hit the headlines is the so-called Revelation of the Magi. The manuscript of this text was preserved in the kind climate (for books) of the Egyptian desert for nearly a thousand years before being purchased by the Vatican Library in the early 18th century. In fact, almost all of the manuscripts from this monastery were purchased by great libraries in Europe—principally the Vatican Library and the British Library—during the period of European "discovery" of Middle Eastern manuscripts (Christian, Jewish, and Islamic). The library of the Monastery of the Syrians is unique, though, mostly thanks to an enterprising abbot called Moses of Nisibis, who was a bibliophile and collector of ancient books—in the 10th century AD this abbot was purchasing books that were already 500 years old! The library possessed many unique works, including such treasures as the world's oldest dated manuscript (AD 411), Syriac translations of otherwise lost Greek works, and even a lost ancient translation of the New Testament into the Syriac language. Though the original owners of the monastery could read the manuscripts in the library, the monastery later came into the hands of the local Coptic church, and the library fell into neglect and disuse. Recent exciting discoveries continue to draw the attention of the scholarly world. (See the article by Carl Griffin in this issue for more on this collection.)
In December 1945, just before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 13 ancient codices (fourth—fifth century AD) were discovered near the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. The exciting story of this accidental discovery is only eclipsed by the remarkable texts contained within these codices, texts that scholars date back to the earliest centuries of the New Testament. Where the Dead Sea Scrolls expose the varieties of Jewish practice in the age of Jesus, these Nag Hammadi texts expose the competing Christianities that vied for adherents in the first centuries after Jesus. New gospels promise the "secret words" of the "living Jesus," other books claim to contain the teachings of the first disciples of Jesus, such as the Secret Book of James. Hugh Nibley has mined these texts and the fruits are found scattered in his collected works. However, there is further interesting work to be done on this important collection.
The Dead Sea Scrolls certainly deserve our attention and interest, as this issue of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity shows so well. However, it is only the tip of a very exciting iceberg of ancient texts.
By Kristian S. Heal
Director of the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts